Four theaters in Sweden have added a sexism rating to their movies, resulting in a great deal of publicity for these theaters and a Scandinavian cable channel that also plans to use the rating. It’s a simple pass/fail of the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test is from a 1985 comic by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who credits the idea to Liz Wallace. It’s a deceptively simple test that few movies pass: Does the film have at least two female characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man? Whether this is truly a test of sexism is debatable. It is possible for a highly sexist movie to pass, and for a film with a positive portrayal of female characters to fail.
The test only considers the portrayal of women. To truly gauge a movie’s sexism, one would have to rate the inclusion and portrayals of straight men, gay men, bisexual men, straight women, gay women, bisexual women, and trans characters, as well as people who reject these labels. Such a rating would be complete, but how useful would it be? Imagine the rating: “This film is rated C for sexism. Positive portrayals of most genders, but three genders absent and a negative portrayal of no more than two genders.” Somebody’s going to be offended, but who? And if it were more detailed: “Warning: This film includes negative portrayals of gay men.” This would warn away one set of viewers, and sadly attract another.
It is true that some gender groups are under portrayed or often misrepresented in movies, and this is a frequent topic of essays and articles about the movie industry. Start here: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, by Laura Mulvey, 1975. Buried in the pop psychology that mars much film analysis is the notion that film is a male dominated tool where women are passive objects who exist only for the pleasure of the active male characters and the male audience. Beyond sexism, movies have many other sins of ideology, such as promoting the consumer society or glorifying individualism, but ratings are not the place to address this.
The Ontario Film Review Board came close to gender based ratings in the 1990s. The 1991 version of Cape Fear included a “Brutal Violence” warning, in part because a woman is attacked. Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg supported the call for an additional “Violence Against Women” warning for such scenes. The chair of the film board rejected the notion, stating it would be unfair to “elevate violence against one gender to a higher level than violence against the other.” The NDP government supported the introduction of a “Violence Against Women” warning. They appointed a new board chair, but the furor over approval of explicit sex scenes following the Supreme Court Butler decision shifted priorities and the warning was never established. The board has continued to be gender neutral despite occasional complaints. For example, the board was criticized for not including gender information along with the “Sexual Content” warning for Brokeback Mountain.
For the past fifty years, most of world has used movie ratings solely to label what is appropriate viewing for children. The criteria is relatively objective: How many swear words are used, how detailed is the violence, and how much sexual activity is shown. Sweden explicitly takes this approach. The Swedish Media Council only classifies films intended to be shown publicly to children under 15, and only for the risk of harm, not suitability. Using the Bechdel test to rate films provides more information about film content, not a bad thing, but it also sets a precedent for rating a film’s suitability for adult audiences.
At best, film ratings are a crude measure of film content, and the Bechdel test as a rating is particularly crude. All it tells you is that at some point two women will talk about something other than a man. The chances of it actually affecting anyone’s decision to see a movie are so slight it becomes meaningless.